Nearly a year ago, the final seconds of Neda Agha Soltan’s life flashed across computer screens worldwide. Peacefully protesting the controversial Iranian presidential elections of last year, 26-year old Neda was shot in the heart by a member of the para-governmental Basij militia. Her dying moments were captured on video by cell phones, and then circulated worldwide via YouTube and other websites.
Neda, whose name means “divine voice” in Persian, has become a symbol of rebellion in Iran—but who was this girl? Very little is known about her. But now, For Neda, a moving new HBO documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Antony Thomas, reveals the details of Neda’s personal fight for freedom. Her story, universal in so many ways, will resonate deeply with ordinary Iranians, especially the estimated three million who protested the presidential election with her in Tehran one year ago.
Copies of For Neda are already going viral in Iran—and Voice of America, the U.S.-sponsored radio broadcasting service, plans to air a Farsi-translation of the documentary in Iran today, June 12, the anniversary of the election, and June 20, the anniversary of Neda’s death. When Iranians tune in, they will hear Neda’s remarkable story from her immediate family members, who still live in Iran and risked their lives to come forward and be interviewed.
Neda’s struggle for freedom began when she was a child. Her mother recalls that Neda was a rebel, “From age three, she never accepted control.” But Neda lived in a society that exerted massive amounts of control over women. Neda would have none of this. For instance, in high school, she fought with school authorities over the chador—the mandatory black cloak that covers women from head to toe. Remarkably, she won that fight and was excused from wearing the chador at school.
Neda went on to attend Tehran’s Azad University to study Islamic philosophy. Like all the female students, Neda faced daily inspections by dour Basiji women who posted themselves at the gates of the university. Considered the guardians of decency in society, the Basij ensure, among other things, that female students are not exposing themselves, or wearing make up, or high heels.
One day, these Basij women were fighting with Neda about her flashy cosmetics. One of Neda’s friends approached the scene wearing high-heels and nail polish herself—but she managed to slip into the university unnoticed. Neda saw this friend from the corner of her eye, winked at her, and started arguing louder to create a diversion.
Neda’s search for freedom led her to drop out of school after two years. She complained that the vengeful god the professors lectured about was not the loving god she worshiped. She began dreaming about leaving Iran. She started learning Turkish and traveled to Turkey often, ecstatic that she could wear what she chose—no veil—and be free there. She took dancing and singing classes. At home, she wore jean mini skirts and read Western books that the ayatollah’s regime considers subversive, like Iranian-translations of Wuthering Heights, Siddhartha, and The Last Temptation of Christ.
Neda was, in short, an ordinary young woman with ordinary desires. But she was living in Iran, a dystopia. She constantly complained to her younger brother, “women in this country cannot live like human beings.”
A year ago, Neda thought that this would change. In the week leading up to the presidential election, she was among the joyful Iranians with high hopes that reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi would defeat the regressive incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When, on June 13, it was announced that Ahmadinejad had won over 60% of the vote—an unlikely and extraordinary number—Neda was beside herself. Provoking a fight with her mother, she implored, “You told me Mousavi would win. What happened?”
Two days later, Neda was among the millions of Iranians in Tehran protesting the corrupt election. Day after day, she took to the streets of Tehran—even after supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei implied on June 19 that security forces would crush any further demonstrations.
The next day, the streets of Tehran were lined with rows and rows of revolutionary guards, police, and Basij militiamen. Neda’s mother begged her to stay home that day, but Neda told her, “I have to go. If I don’t go out, who will?” Once on the streets, Neda described the scene to her mother over the phone, “it’s like hell…They are chasing us and beating us.”
“What grabbed my attention,” according to Arash Hejazi, an Iranian doctor protesting nearby Neda that day, was “she was so active—shouting death to the dictator, acting, supporting others, moving around, while her music teacher [her companion that day] was trying to pull her back but she didn’t want to give up.”
Ominously then, a group of security forces charged the crowd with batons in their hands. Everyone, including Neda and Hejazi fled. Then, they heard the gunshots. Hejazi turned back. Neda had stopped running and was staring in shock at the blood that was gushing out of her chest. She collapsed and after a minute died on the street with Hejazi and her music teacher helplessly hovering over her in panic.
In the days that followed, thousands of grieving Iranians gathered to publicly mourn Neda’s death, despite the regime’s threats and crackdown. No wonder the ghost of Neda continues to haunt the Iranian government. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry plans to release a documentary of its own in the next few days showing that Neda’s death was staged. This would be at least the seventh official and conflicting account of Neda’s death from the regime.
That the regime needs to resort to such theatrics is almost good news. It is more proof, if proof is needed, of how powerful a symbol Neda is to the Iranian people. The regime’s insecurity is palpable. Neda did not die in vain.
Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C.